Life coaches define their own growing profession

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Early on in her career, Susan English would say she was a coach, and people would think first of basketball or baseball or swimming, not life. That's changed, she said.

"It's gotten to be where people recognize that life needs coaching, also," she said.

This week, Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary also recognized the emergence of the life coach. The dictionary company announced it was adding the term to its pages, one of about 100 words added as part of the dictionary's annual update to reflect additions to the English language.

The newest edition of the dictionary defines life coach, a noun, as "an advisor who helps people make decisions, set and reach goals, or deal with problems."

Sister Susan, who in addition to being a life coach is also a Benedictine sister, would change the word "advisor" to "facilitator," but other than that adjustment, she welcomed the term's addition to the dictionary.

"I'm delighted," she said. "It says a lot about how much the profession has grown."


In 2001, when the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette first published an article about the life coach movement, Tom Volkar was one of about 10,000 life coaches worldwide, and one of just 15 to 30 in the Pittsburgh area.

Fast forward a little more than a decade, and Mr. Volkar, 62, of Carroll Township, Washington County, continues to work full-time as a life coach, with a special focus on coaching people trying to start their own business.

"I help people see who they are so then they can see the right choices to make for them," he said.

Mr. Volkar, who maintains a client base of 12 to 15 people at a time, charges about $3,000 for a 90-day session of coaching. In the aftermath of an economic downturn, he said, more people are deciding that the right choice is to create their own security by building their own business, a process Mr. Volkar coaches them through.

As his life coach business has endured, the industry itself has grown.

Mr. Volkar is now among more than 18,000 coaches worldwide, according to the International Coach Federation, and one of more than 60 coaches listed on the Pittsburgh Coaches Association website.

The coaches listed by the Pittsburgh Coaches Association site are prepared to help clients approach issues in their lives ranging from career to parenting to relationships to personal finance.

Life coaching has grown as a profession and an industry for a few reasons, said Michael J. Forlenza, the director of the Professional Coach Certification Program at Duquesne University's School of Leadership and Professional Advancement, a program that started within the past five years.

Organizations such as the International Coach Federation have professionalized the job of life coach by adding codes and standards, Mr. Forlenza said. The industry has also benefited from a renewed focus on positive psychology and from research on the benefits of coaching.

And the industry will benefit further, he said, from its addition to the Merriam-Webster dictionary.

"I think, what it again does, is it professionalizes and legitimizes a profession that has a body of knowledge and a set of techniques that are evidence-based and effective," he said.

The certification program at Duquesne, which is beginning its sixth cohort in the fall with 23 students enrolled and one spot remaining, is an eight-month program designed for current or aspiring coaches.


Sister Susan, who is co-director of training for the Duquesne program, also has a private coaching practice listed as "Fully Alive Life Coaching" on the Pittsburgh Coaches Association website. She maintains about 25 clients at a time and works out of the Benedictine Sisters of St. Benedict Monastery.

In her view, life coaching is different from consulting or mentoring or advising. It's not primarily advice giving, she said.

"I think life coaching is a confidential conversation between two people, looking to help somebody, the client, set their goals and actually work towards them," she said. "It's a conversation with a purpose, rather than just a casual conversation."

A life coach, she said, helps clients "to recognize their own wisdom."


This story originally appeared in The Pittsburgh Press. To subscribe: Kaitlynn Riely: or 412-263-1707.


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